Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common virus that can affect people of all ages, but infection is more common among children and infants.

For many adults and healthy children, RSV infection causes symptoms similar to those of a cold. But in infants, RSV can be more serious.

The infection usually causes no serious damage, but in severe cases, it can lead to serious lung complications.

RSV is one of the most common viruses to cause lung and airway infections in infants and small children.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that each year in the United States, over 58,000 children under the age of 5 are hospitalized with RSV infections.

The CDC also mentions that the virus is seasonal and is most commonly seen from September to May.

Depending on your age, the severity of RSV infection, as well as the symptoms, can vary.

Symptoms typically surface within 4 to 6 days of infection. Older individuals usually have milder symptoms like congestion or fever. Children under the age of 1 exhibit the most serious symptoms.

Common symptoms of RSV infection for both adults and children include:

  • fever
  • congestion
  • cough
  • runny nose
  • sneezing

Less common symptoms include:

  • wheezing
  • difficult, short, or fast breathing
  • bluish skin

Usually, these are only seen with more severe infections, such as bronchiolitis or pneumonia.

RSV symptoms in infants

Very young infants with RSV may seem irritable, be tired, and have some congestion. These symptoms should clear up on their own after a few days.

If the condition persists, infants may develop fast breathing. This type of breathing can be identified by their chest “caving in” around their ribs with every inhale, and their nostrils flaring out.

Their mouth, lips, and fingernails may also have a bluish tinge to them due to a lack of oxygen.

This type of fast breathing, especially when accompanied by bluish coloring, is a serious medical emergency. If you believe your baby has these symptoms, seek emergency medical care as soon as you can.

RSV vs. COVID-19

RSV and COVID-19 are both respiratory viruses, so many of their symptoms overlap. While both COVID-19 and RSV can cause a runny nose, fever, and cough, there are a few subtle differences:

  • RSV does not cause a loss of taste or smell. If you or your child has developed this symptom along with a runny nose, fever, cough, or fatigue, it might be a COVID-19 infection.
  • Very young kids and babies with RSV typically have a slow onset of cold-like symptoms, and then a quick escalation.

Because the symptoms of both RSV and COVID-19 are so similar, it’s always a good idea to talk with your doctor as soon as you notice symptoms in yourself or your child, or get tested for COVID-19 as soon as you can.

RSV is a viral infection that can be passed via close contact with someone who has it. If you are standing next to someone with RSV and they cough or sneeze, there’s a chance you might get the virus.

It’s also possible to get the virus by touching something, such as a toy or a doorknob, that was touched recently by someone who has the virus.

Some individuals are at a higher risk of developing a serious RSV infection. These individuals include:

  • premature babies
  • people with weakened immune systems
  • children with heart or lung diseases
  • people living in crowded conditions
  • children attending day care
  • adults over the age of 65

In addition to having an increased risk of more serious infections, children with more severe cases of RSV may develop ear infections and croup, which is an inflammation and swelling of the vocal cords. This causes a loud, barking sound when coughing.

Children who develop bronchiolitis as a result of RSV may have a higher risk of developing asthma, though the cause isn’t clear.

However, most children with RSV have few, if any, complications and the infection runs its course in 1 or 2 weeks.

In very severe cases of RSV, an individual may need to be hospitalized and may require extra oxygen, either through nasal cannula tubing attached to their nose or a tube inserted into their throat and connected to a ventilator.

Testing for RSV is often not needed. If it’s required, there are several types of laboratory tests used for diagnosis.

The one most commonly used is the rapid diagnostic test. This test looks for RSV antigens in nasal secretions. Your doctor can take a nasal swab and send it for testing. The results are usually available in less than an hour.

If a rapid test is negative, your doctor may order a virus culture of the secretions.

For more serious suspected cases, a medical professional might perform a blood test, chest X-ray, or CT scan to check for lung complications.

Since RSV is a virus, it can’t be treated with medications like antibiotics. In most cases, especially in older children, symptoms of RSV are similar to the cold or flu. Many of these cases of RSV resolve without treatment.

Getting sufficient rest and drinking plenty of fluids can help children recover. Over-the-counter fever reducers and pain relievers can also help. It’s important to pay attention to the dosage.

Regular suctioning of mucus from the nose with a rubber bulb can relieve congestion in babies and toddlers. Saline drops can also loosen mucus and help with the suction process.

Very young infants may need to be hospitalized if they require breathing support.

There’s no cure for RSV, but there are ways to reduce your risk of getting and spreading the virus. RSV is spread, like other viruses, through microscopic droplets released into the air or on surfaces.

You can minimize your risk of getting the infection by:

  • washing your hands frequently
  • covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing
  • not sharing utensils and drinking cups

Palivizumab (Synagis) is an antibody targeted specifically at the virus causing RSV infection. It can be used in some high-risk infants up to the age of 24 months to prevent infection.

This drug is administered monthly as a shot during the RSV season. It can help prevent severe infection but can’t cure or treat an illness that has already developed.

RSV is a common virus that tends to pop up during the fall and winter months. Anyone at any age can get RSV, but it’s more common in young children and babies.

In most cases, the symptoms of RSV are mild and usually clear up on their own after a week or so.

However, because the symptoms of RSV often overlap with the symptoms of both the flu and COVID-19, it’s important to talk with a doctor as soon as you notice symptoms in yourself or your child.